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Lingering on the Banks of the Jordan

The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, as it is written in Isaiah the prophet: “Behold, I am sending my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way: A voice crying in the wilderness, Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.” John came, baptizing in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism
— Mark 1:1–4a. Author’s translation (so throughout)

As we enter into the new liturgical year, which has Gospel readings drawn mostly from the Gospel of Mark, supplemented with readings from John in Year B of the Revised Common Lectionary, I offer reflections on how these readings from Mark contribute to the seasonal commemorations of Advent and Epiphany. With Mark’s lack of traditional material related to Jesus’ birth, found only in Matthew and Luke, the lectionary readings from Mark in Year B present somewhat repetitive but interesting and rich fare for meditating on Jesus, his coming, and his revelation as God’s “beloved son” (Mark 1:11) in these seasons. After a brief survey of Mark’s place in the early tradition of the church, I focus on the ministry of John the Baptist, and Jesus’ arrival on the banks of the Jordan in Mark as a way of preview to significant themes in Mark that I hope preachers and students of the Bible may find helpful in the coming weeks.

In my first time preaching through Mark in Year B of the Revised Common Lectionary, I found the lectionary readings for Mark challenging. Leaving out the extended session in the Bread of Life discourse in John 6 that takes up the better part of Year B summers — You’ve been warned, preachers! — Mark can be a difficult Gospel to crack open. The stories are short, tight, and sometimes include details that are hard to comprehend in the smaller sections we get week to week. In ethical matters, Mark often presents Jesus’ harder sayings without some of the softening that Matthew and Luke include. For example, in Year B, Proper 22, Jesus’ teachings on divorce from Mark 10:1–12 are much more black and white than the corresponding version of the teaching from Matt 19:3–9.

However, since Mark is so much shorter than Matthew and Luke, the lectionary uniquely repeats portions of Mark numerous times in close succession. This is the case in the weeks surrounding Christmas, in Advent and Epiphany. In the second week of Advent, we get Mark 1:1–8, “the beginning of the gospel” and the ministry of John the Baptist, before Jesus’ arrival. Four weeks later, on the first Sunday after the Epiphany, we return to the same passage about John the Baptist, now reading from Mark 1:4–11, which also includes Jesus’ arrival and baptism. Two weeks later, on the third Sunday after the Epiphany, we get a brief reading describing Jesus’ return from his wilderness temptation from Mark 1:14–20, like John the Baptist, preaching the gospel (1:14), calling people to repent in the wilderness (1:15, cf. 1:4), and bidding people to join him beside the water (1:16–20, cf. 1:5). In fact, most of the Gospel readings in Epiphany season involve short scenes of Jesus either calling, preaching, or healing people around the Sea of Galilee from the first chapter of Mark.

Rather than ignoring these short, somewhat repetitive Gospel readings in favor of other lectionary texts, I encourage preachers and students of the Bible to linger with Jesus and John beside the waters to see who Jesus is and meditate on who Mark reveals him to be in this season of Advent and Epiphany. In a reading that begins with an announcement of “the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, as it is written” (Mark 1:1–2a) and continues with the baptism of Jesus as the one “who will baptize you with the Holy Spirit” (1:8b), who Jesus is revealed to be at his baptism has significance for what it means for him to baptize us with the Holy Spirit. In the remainder of this essay, I walk through the readings from Mark from the second Sunday of Advent through Epiphany, highlighting the development of this theme in the progression of the lectionary.

The center of the first section of Mark is the ministry of John the Baptist and the baptism of Jesus. In Advent 2 and again on the first Sunday after the Epiphany, we get these two stories with some repetition of the ministry of John in Mark 1:4–8 showing up in both readings. The Advent 2 reading (Mark 1:1–8) frames John’s ministry as the “beginning of the gospel,” the fulfillment of the Scriptures Mark quotes to describe the message of the gospel “as it is written” (1:2). John is “the messenger” sent ahead, preparing “the way of the Lord” (1:2–3). John’s call, “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (1:4), does more than prepare the people from the Judean countryside to welcome the Lord. His act, according to the Scriptures, prepares the way for us to receive Jesus as the “Lord” (1:3), the God of Israel in the flesh, who will baptize us with the Holy Spirit. The message of the gospel has its beginning in our hearts when we hear the call to repentance and prepare ourselves to receive the baptism of him who baptizes us with the Holy Spirit.

On the first Sunday after Epiphany, we hear John’s message again, now directed toward this coming “stronger one” (1:7) who will baptize us the Holy Spirit, and we experience in Jesus’ baptism what this baptism with the Holy Spirit does. Mark offers little fanfare about Jesus’ baptism. All he says is that “Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan” (1:9). What happens next is the main event: “And immediately upon coming up from the water, he saw the ripped-open heavens and the Spirit as a dove descending into him” (1:10). Jesus’ baptism leads to an opening of heaven, from which the Spirit descends into him. This is more than just an epiphany of who Jesus is. It is an apocalypse, an unveiling, a pulling back, even the very tearing open of heaven, an event that changes the relationship between earth and heaven. It prefigures the Transfiguration, in which God would disclose Jesus’ glorified nature to Peter, James, and John, but even more, it anticipates the crucifixion, in which Mark uses the same word to describe the veil dividing the holy place of the Temple being ripped from top to bottom, from heaven to earth, opening the place of God’s unique dwelling to the entire world.

This opening of heaven leads to the unique perspective Mark gives us readers into the voice Jesus hears, addressed in a way that could just as easily be addressed to us as to him: “And a voice occurred from heaven, ‘You are my son, the beloved, in you I am well pleased” (1:11). This is similar to how Paul describes the experience of those who receive the Spirit in baptism in his letters to the Galatians and Romans: “God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying ‘Abba, Father!’” (Gal. 4:6b), “that Spirit co-testifies with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, also heirs: heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, provided that we co-suffer with him in order that we may be co-glorified with him” (Rom. 8:16–17). Mark has disclosed to the reader who Jesus is: God’s beloved son; but he also opens this voice to us, who have received the Spirit from the one who baptizes us with the Spirit, making us children of God. Our adoption into Christ comes from his sonship through the Spirit.

Two Sundays later, on the third Sunday after Epiphany, we return to the aftermath of this baptismal scene to find Jesus emerging from his Spirit-impelled temptation in the wilderness (1:12–13), to find John arrested, and Jesus now proclaiming John’s message fulfilled. No longer do we hear of a coming stronger one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit. Jesus now proclaims “the gospel” (1:14): “The time has been fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has drawn near; repent and believe in the gospel” (1:15). The message of the gospel, for which John’s message was preparation, according to the Scriptures (1:2–4), is now proclaimed in full: Jesus’ call to repentance and belief in the gospel is a call to enter into the fullness of his kingdom, forsaking our ways of life and following his road, a road that will lead to the cross. Again Jesus returns to the waterside, no longer at the Jordan River but beside the Sea of Galilee. Jesus draws disciples out of the water, away from their boats, and he asks them to forsake their lives to follow him. What begins as a call to worldly renunciation, the forsaking of a few boats and nets to fish for people, will become a call to embody the fullness of baptism, to “drink the cup that I will drink and be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized” in death (10:38–39); “to come after” Jesus, one must “deny himself, take up his cross, and follow” him (8:34). This is a life lived in repentance and belief in the gospel.

The following two Sundays, Jesus reveals that this coming of the kingdom of God in its fullness is more than a choice between fishing or preaching. It is the beginning of the end for the powers of death in the world. The unclean spirits recognize Jesus, and tremble: “Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are: the Holy One of God” (1:24). Jesus’ authority extends beyond an earthly realm to rule over all forces terrestrial and spiritual. Indeed, as the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit, Jesus drives out spiritual forces of uncleanness in our hearts. His teaching has “authority: He commands even the unclean spirits and they obey him” (1:27b). Then in Simon and Andrew’s house, Jesus raises Simon’s mother-in-law from her illness and cures many throughout the city who were sick and oppressed by unclean spirits. These spirits know him, but Jesus wants his identity to remain a secret. Only those with spiritual sight can fully perceive who he is and what he has come to do.

At last, as the Epiphany season comes to a close, we come to the first full disclosure of Jesus’ identity to the disciples in the Transfiguration in Mark 9:2–9. Up to this point, only the unclean spirits have spoken of his divine sonship (see 1:24, 34; 3:11; 5:7), and although Peter has acknowledged Jesus as the Christ, he does not yet understand Jesus’ vocation to offer himself unto death to be raised (see 8:31–33). This call, Jesus’ identity as God’s beloved son, is more than authority: Like Isaac, Abraham’s “beloved son” (Gen. 22:2, 12, 16), Jesus is called to offer himself “on the mountain [God chooses]” (Gen. 22:2), which after this act of “worship” he will “return to you” (Gen. 22:5). The disciples, beholding Jesus’ glory with Moses and Elijah on the mountain of Transfiguration, hear the voice Jesus heard, as we did at his baptism, “This is my son, the beloved; listen to him!” (Mark 9:7b). To what are they to listen? Jesus predicts his death and resurrection three times (8:31; 9:31; 10:32–34), but each time they would not understand (8:32–33; 9:32; 10:35–45). So too, descending the mountain of Transfiguration, they would not understand what Jesus meant by dying and resurrecting (9:9–10). However, these disclosures of Jesus’ identity, message, power, and glory in Epiphany prepare us, as John’s preaching does in Advent 2 and Epiphany1, to walk with him on the road to the cross in Lent, and to see his identity as God’s self-sacrificing beloved son become manifest in taking up our Lenten crosses (Mark 8:34), “co-suffering with him in order that we may be co-glorified with him” (Rom. 8:17) through the work of the Holy Spirit with which he baptizes us.

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